Five responses to claims made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network.

I would like to briefly address some assertions that I have witnessed being made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network (AVN). The following five quotes are representative of recurring claims.

"Because every issue has two sides"

1) “Every issue has two sides” (from the banner at the top of the AVN’s website, above)

Indeed – and some sides are just plain bulldust!

In the case of whether vaccination is safe, effective and our best chance at protecting ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases, on one side is scientific consensus, the educated opinion of the medical fraternity, public health policy and the majority of informed laypeople. On the other are a few rogue scientists, conspiracy theorists, misled and misinformed individuals and charlatans.

Insisting that anti-vaccination spokespeople be heard whenever the subject of vaccination comes up is demanding false balance. It is equivalent to ensuring that a flat-earther be invited to speak at a geography conference or teaching intelligent design in science classes. The scientific consensus is in and it has been in for a long time. Any controversy regarding whether vaccination is the safest and most effective method of preventing vaccine preventable diseases is being manufactured from an ill informed and non-evidence based position.

2) “We are not anti-vaccination – we are about choice” (‘Doctors unite to smash the anti-vaccine group‘, The Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2012)

…just as long as that choice is to refuse vaccination.

I have looked long and hard, as have others, and have been unable find one example on the AVN’s website of a situation in which the AVN would find vaccination to be an acceptable proposition. The AVN sells a t-shirt in their online store which reads “Love them. Protect them. Never inject them.”

A Titan Arum by any other name would smell as rank, the AVN are anti-vaccination.

I presume that the AVN’s insistence that they are pro-choice is a PR exercise. I would like to know precisely why they wish to distance themselves from the movement that they are a part of.

I suspect that their decision to label themselves ‘pro-choice’ instead was to help cultivate a desired image of the AVN as oppressed freedom fighters. I feel that Meryl Dorey’s Twitter account “nocompulsoryvac” and blog posting handle “nocompulsoryvaccination” support my hypothesis.

As such, I would like point out that there is no threat to peoples’ right to refuse vaccination for themselves or their children in Australia. Parents may choose to forfeit a financial incentive or government benefit when they refuse to vaccinate their children. In some instances adults may need to choose a career which doesn’t require them to be vaccinated for the safety of themselves and others. However, Australian health policy does not enforce compulsory or mandatory vaccination and I know of very few people who feel that it should.

3) “Vaccination is neither 100% safe nor 100% effective and parents need to be fully informed before making a decision for their children.” (‘Public Health Unit Turns Down the Offer to Speak at Vaccination Seminar | Vactruth.com‘ AVN blog post (comments), 16 June 2012)

I concur, let’s have a biscuit!

I have never heard anybody make the claim that vaccination is either 100% safe or 100% effective. When weighing up the risks associated with vaccination against the risks in not vaccinating, vaccination is inarguably the much safer option. Likewise, the efficacy of vaccination in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (or ensuring a much milder case of the illness is contracted in some cases when exposure occurs) is incomparable against the non-existent preventative powers of not vaccinating at all.

I agree that parents should be making an informed decision when considering vaccinating their children. However, that information should be correct and come from a credible source, such as their GP or the Immunisation Handbook, rather than shonky misinformation websites such as that of the AVN, whale.to or naturalnews.com.

4) “How many children are we willing to sacrifice before the altar of vaccination in order to ‘protect’ society?” (‘Can children be considered collateral damage‘, AVN blog post, 24 March 2011)

None. No light-hearted opening line for this one.

I assert that the suggestion of ‘sacrifice’ is an inaccurate and unreasonable appeal to emotion. Any harm caused by vaccination is a tragedy and those involved in the development of vaccines work
tirelessly to improve the safety of vaccines in order to bring them as close as they can possibly be to being 100% safe.

While the majority of adverse reactions to the whole cell pertussis component of Triple Antigen were mild and had no long term effects (these included fever, irritability, persistent crying and local site reaction), immunologists worked to produce an acellular pertussis vaccine which has been associated with far fewer reactions. Likewise, the incredibly rare occurrence of paralytic poliomyelitis (one in two point four million) from the oral polio vaccine was considered unacceptable. Because of this, the inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine was developed.

Again, consider the risks associated with vaccination alongside the risks inherent with non-vaccination. Opting out of vaccination (without a genuine medical contraindication) is choosing the much higher risk of not vaccinating. There is no completely safe option, only one with a comparatively low risk – a low risk which is being reduced with every development which improves the safety of vaccines we use.

5) “I find the hostile attitude towards parents of vaccine injured children particularly astounding, as parents of children that have been killed or disabled have always been treated with an outpouring of compassion, understanding and empathy.” (‘‘Anti Vaxxer’ the new dirty word?‘, AVN blog post, 31 July 2012)

Meryl Dorey and a number of her colleagues identify as parents of vaccine-injured children, but I assert that framing criticism of the AVN as ‘attacks on parents of vaccine-injured children’ is a cheap and inaccurate attempt to demonise anybody who publicly disagrees with them.

I appreciate the diverse experiences of parents of children with special needs. I do have some insight into family life with children with disabilities, as I grew up alongside my younger brother, who has severe autism and developmental delay. I acknowledge that I cannot claim to empathise with parents of children with special needs though and I sincerely hope that when I speak with those who do have a child with a disability I am considerate and receptive.

I acknowledge that sadly, adverse reactions to vaccines do occur and that there are children and adults with genuine vaccine injuries. I do question whether the cases of allergies, asthma, autism and other conditions which the AVN’s members are attributing to vaccination have been confirmed as vaccine related by medical professionals, given that there is no credible evidence that vaccination causes any of the above conditions. However, I do not single out individuals publicly, nor do I make contact and question or criticise them directly.

Many parents of children with special needs – including parents who have gone through the tragedy of an adverse reaction to a vaccine – are still able to accept that vaccination is our safest and most effective option in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (and my hat is off to them). Of the few who choose to reject the overwhelming majority of credible evidence supporting vaccination, there is a sub set who then spread anti-vaccination misinformation and propaganda. They are joined with others who, for reasons other than something so personal as parenting a special needs child, believe that scientific consensus is not credible and vaccination is either unsafe, ineffective or both.

I would like to clearly state that my criticism of the AVN and my desire to hold them accountable is because they are an organisation which, if left unchallenged, spread misinformation which can cause doubt as to the safety and efficacy of vaccination, scaring parents away from having their children vaccinated. Unvaccinated children are at risk of serious illness and in some instances, death. The lower the vaccination rate, the greater the risk that an infant too young to be vaccinated, a child with a compromised immune system due to cancer treatment or organ transplant or others who cannot be vaccinated will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease.

I do not attack parents of vaccine injured children, I criticise the actions of an organisation which, given legitimacy, put the most vulnerable members of our community at risk.

(See my previous post: “This is criticism, this is not abuse“)

At the time of posting, all links to the AVN’s website are inactive. From Meryl Dorey (full text here):

“Last night, ABC’s media watch put out a dreadful story calling for the media to stop reporting the other side of the vaccination issue. The result was that so many people came to the AVN’s website, the server was overloaded and the site taken down. We have upgraded our server and should be back online within 24 hours, but it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”

Being inclined to consider two sides to every story, Ms Dorey, I would like to suggest that instead of jumping to the conclusion that your website being overloaded and collapsing was because “it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”, you ruminate on whether perhaps part of that flood in website traffic was comprised of individuals wishing to see for themselves just how ‘baloney’-heavy the misinformation you’re espousing really is.

In lieu of the usual ‘Further Reading’ section to this rather opinion-heavy post, I thoroughly recommend viewing (or reading the transcript of) the Media Watch segment on WINNews Illawarra, the AVN and false balance in reporting which ran on ABC TV last night. Further background information to this story is provided in Reasonable Hank’s post “ABC News teaches WIN News a lesson in responsible public health broadcasting“.

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4 comments

  1. Hi Jo- I am very encouraged by your robust and well researched posts. I experienced pressure from both sides of the argument when Rowan was little and my questions regarding claims of risk of developmental delay from the triple antigen were met with indignant dismissal by my gp and meek agreement by myself. Ro has been fully vaccinated and contracted whooping cough last year. What an interesting social experiment to have people assume one thing (non vaccinated) and watch them realise the
    truth. It was a valuable lesson for me in the
    importance of vaccination, because his case
    could have been much worse. Keep up the
    thought provoking info – viva la free speech ;especially when it is intelligent!(air fist punch!)

    1. Hi Amanda,

      I’m glad that you stopped by and thank you for the encouraging words!

      Your experience with concerns about Rowan’s Triple Antigen shot really affirms for me the importance in taking time to address worries that parents may have regarding vaccine safety in an attentive and responsive manner. I can sympathise somewhat with a doctor who may be spending a lot of their time trying to undo the doubts instilled by anti-vaccinationists on a daily basis, but having a dismissive manner strikes me as such a dangerous risk to take. I’m very glad that you went with it, but wish that it’d been under more empowering (for lack of a better word!) circumstances.

      I didn’t know that he’d had whooping cough, poor lad. I can imagine that peoples’ reactions would have been very interesting – I often wonder whether anyone makes assumptions about our views on vaccination based on our and the kids’ appearance and manner.

      It scares me that pertussis was in the community when O & D were too young to be fully immunised. Did you know that we’ve currently got the sixth lowest immunisation coverage in the country here, at 86.8%? D is booked in for her Varicella shot in three weeks’ time, then we’re all done until they turn 4. I’m so thankful that they’ve stayed safe and healthy.

  2. Super work – I am a community midwife who will often agree to disagree with clients about issues to do with vaccination. The vehemence of the anti-vax folk is quite astounding. I also frequently have parents ask about delayed starts to vaccinations, and separating the components of combined vaxes. I encourage them to make up their own mind, but tell them the stats are in their favour, especially compared to the impact of the disease itself.

    I will make a note of your website and send folk to read your words

    many thanks 🙂

    1. Wow, thanks so much Jane – that’s a lovely comment!

      I recently took a Coursera course put together by Professor Paul Offit on vaccines in which he put forward some rather interesting points against delayed and selective schedules – that they undermine the perceived safety of vaccines and expertise that goes in to creating the recommended schedule, that Dr Sears didn’t base his suggested schedule on any hard evidence, that separating shots and staggering them can lead to increased stress and needlephobia and that there’s a longer amount of time that an infant may be spending needlessly unprotected from VPDs.

      All that said, the big argument for delayed and selective vaccination is that it’s better than complete vaccine refusal.

      My hat is truly off to medical professionals such as yourself who engage with new parents unsure about vaccination (or sure that it isn’t right for their child). So thank you. 🙂

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